Scientology is absolutely ridiculous. Let’s just be blunt about that right out of the gate. The silliness of the sci-fi cosmology that acts as the core of its belief system is matched only by the absurd and dangerous lengths the “church” will go to to keep the details of that belief system a secret. While most Western religions are a joke, Scientology is an outright pratfall, with its only real resemblance to religion as the rest of the planet understands it being that it’s taken the notion of faith a couple of steps further into the realm of the cultish. While it’s easy to see how Scientology could thrive in, say, the 70s and 80s, when any charlatan who got himself end-cap placement in the new age self-help section of the local book store could start a cultural revolution, the internet era has given rise to a billion little bulwarks to that kind of bullshit. Not only have the internet and social media spawned a culture of skepticism to outlandish claims, they’ve made it damn near impossible to keep secrets and exert totalitarian control. And if you know anything about Scientology, outlandish claims, secrets and totalitarian control are its stock in trade.
If you’ve been on Twitter at all this past week, you might have noticed a couple of tweets in your feed from “@FreedomEthics,” which is the handle of a group called Freedom Media Ethics. The tweets in question are taking to task the new HBO documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney on Scientology. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is based on the best-selling book by Pulitzer-winner Lawrence Wright, who delved deeply the history of Scientology, its enigmatic founder L. Ron Hubbard and his somewhat tyrannical successor David Miscavige, the lives of its famous adherents in Hollywood, and the insidious hold it’s exerted on its average followers throughout the years. The book — and film — includes interviews with those who’ve escaped Scientology, including director Paul Haggis, who turned on the church in damning and spectacular fashion back in 2011. If you’ve seen the tweets from Freedom Media Ethics and wondered A) why you’ve never heard of the organization before, and B) why you’re suddenly getting tweets from a group that has less than 300 followers, the answer is simple: It’s because Freedom Media Ethics is an arm of Scientology and the tweets are sponsored, part of a massive media campaign of P.R. and retaliation against Gibney’s film, which Scientology understands is absolutely a threat to it.
Here’s the thing, though: There’s nothing Scientology can do here. Nothing. It’s fucked. Despite the best efforts of Miscavige’s minions, Gibney’s documentary is going to serve as the final nail in the coffin of an organization that’s been dying for at least the past decade. Former Village Voice editor Tony Ortega, who’s one of the most vocal and thorough critics of Scientology, has chronicled the church’s dwindling numbers and resources for some time now. In addition to posting some of the most insane P.R. stunts the organization has pulled in an effort to make it seem like everything’s coming up roses within its ranks — the jaw-dropping fundraising video set to the very off-key tune of We Built This City and We’re Not Gonna Take It will haunt your brain for a month — Ortega has used sources inside Scientology to confirm that the organization is furious and scared of the blowback from the Gibney documentary. And blowback is guaranteed, either in the form of an outright public rallying cry to have the organization’s tax exempt status removed or, at the very least, more relentless mockery.
Either way, the doc is likely to confirm what people have thought about Scientology for years now — certainly since Tom Cruise went completely off the rails back in 2009, in a leaked Scientology video I still watch every once in a while because it’s just that weird, and South Park exposed the lunatic core beliefs that Scientologists become privy to once they get far enough along L. Ron’s “Bridge To Total Freedom” (and pay thousands and thousands of dollars).
Going Clear has only been screened a few times now but the response to it has been overwhelmingly positive. Media outlets have of course homed-in on the movie’s claim that Scientology insiders spied on Nicole Kidman in an effort to break up her and Tom Cruise’s marriage. (They considered her an S.P., which is Scientology’s quasi-military acronymic lingo for a “Suppressive Person.”) But the documentary also reveals the lengths the organization has gone to throughout its history to keep believers in line, keep troublemakers out, and keep the press from ever saying anything negative about the whole grift. But the notoriously litigious church doesn’t have a leg to stand on this time and it knows it. Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, has famously said that the network hired “160 lawyers” in preparation for Scientology’s response to the movie, and even despite this, HBO has so much cultural clout and is so powerful as an arm of Time Warner that even the mighty Church of Scientology doesn’t stand a chance against it. It can take out all the ads it wants, buy all the tweets it can and issue press releases to every mainstream media outlet in America dismissing Gibney and his work — it simply won’t make any difference. That’s because the time in which Scientology could successfully threaten its critics is over. No one outside of the purview of the organization’s big blue building on Sunset Boulevard is scared of Scientology anymore.
Back in 2008, Anonymous declared war on Scientology. It was the first time a lot of people had ever heard of Anonymous and anyone who understood how Scientology worked — myself included — reveled in the idea of a shadowy and incorporeal entity taking on a group who, for the first time, was left utterly helpless. Anonymous turned Scientology’s own cloak-and-dagger tactics against it and it was admittedly a hell of a lot of fun to watch. What this marked was a turning point, the realization that in the age of not a few media outlets but literally millions, it would be impossible for Scientology to reach into its bag of dirty tricks and use whatever it found to cow and silence its attackers. The group didn’t know who to hit back at — and it certainly couldn’t hit back at everyone. The message was simply out of its control. What began then is coming to fruition now, with a cult which simply cannot function without absolute secrecy and control desperately trying to maintain both in an era where such things are impossible. Going Clear and the pop culture buzz surrounding it won’t be undone by a bunch of clunky-sounding disputes and denials from Scientology’s home office. Not this time. They can’t successfully smear Gibney and they don’t know how to stop the social media tide that’s about to wash over them.
There will always be desperate people who cling to ridiculous nonsense like Scientology. But make no mistake: The con L. Ron Hubbard began decades ago and which was taken to chilling new depths by David Miscavige, is slowly but surely coming to an end.